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Photo Illustration by Rachel Beatty

A threadbare year

Music | Negative sales continued to dog 2010's pop musical scene

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

On the whole, the pop music of 2010 seemed less like a series of intersecting plot lines than a Rorschach splatter a-squirm with multiple, incongruous, and, for the most part, none-too-deep meanings.

Billboard's "Top 25 Musical Moments of 2010," for instance, had a lot to do with musicians but almost nothing to do with music. That the latest albums by Eminem, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend sold better or charted higher than expected may say something about the health of the music industry (not quite dead yet), but it says nothing about whether the songs on those albums add up to something worth pondering.

And, not counting the slow-news-day dog-bites-man stories of incarcerated rappers ("Lil Wayne Stays Behind Bars," "T.I. Goes to Jail, Again") and other inevitabilities ("American Idol Goes Through Changes," "Bret Michaels Nearly Dies"), most of the rest of the "musical moments" were either hilariously inconsequential ("The Justin Bieber Takeover," "Kanye West Joins Twitter"), depressingly inconsequential ("Green Day Rocks Broadway," "Glee Beats the Beatles"), or both ("Bono's Bad Back Pauses U2 Tour," "'We Are the World' Turns 25").

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As for "Lady Gaga's Monster Year," it was largely the result of the former Stefani Germanotta's apparently indefatigable commitment to keeping herself in the headlines by wearing absurd or insufficient clothing. Meanwhile, the dubious significance of "The Beatles Join iTunes" was probably best summed up by this November Tweet from Weird Al Yankovic: "Thank you, iTunes! I've been very interested to hear these 'Beatles' that everybody's been talking about."

It came as no surprise, therefore, that the 13 percent increase in digital-album sales was offset by the 20-percent decrease in hard-copy sales that extended the negative-sales trend to four straight years.

Perhaps the only music demographic that had more reason to mourn was fans of bassists, as Marvin Isley, the Kinks' Pete Quaife, Hall & Oates' T-Bone Wolk, Big Star's Andy Hummel, the Dillards' Mitch Jayne, the Gap Band's Robert Wilson, Slipknot's Paul Gray, and Type O Negative's Peter Singer passed away.

And while fans of Christian (or at least biblical) rock mourned the passing of the Call's Michael Been, no musician's death in 2010 marked the passing of an era the way Michael Jackson's did in 2009, with most of those who died-even those who were still touring and performing semi-regularly (the soul giant Solomon Burke, the indie progenitor Alex Chilton)-having made their marks so long ago (Lena Horne, Eddie Fisher) that in the minds of many the epochs they embodied were already chapters in a history book.

Against such a threadbare patchwork, the announcement of the musicians to be honored at the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies felt downright weighty. Make of their uneven output and occasionally uneven lives what you will, Tom Waits, Dr. John, and Neil Diamond (whose 2010 album Dreams was his best in decades) have demonstrated an admirable staying power and an even more admirable capacity to grow as artists.

The most pleasant Rock and Roll Hall of Fame surprise, however, was the inclusion among the 2011 inductees of Alice Cooper and the other original members of the Alice Cooper Band.

Besides the release of his Theater of Death-Live at Hammersmith 2009 DVD and the bonus-track-enhanced re-release of his 2008 concept album about a serial killer who finds Christ, Along Came a Spider, Cooper responded to a ghost-hunter question from SodaHead.com by saying that he believes in demons because "Jesus spent half his time dealing with demons and throwing them out of people."

It was a "musical moment" worthy of Billboard's top 25 to be sure.

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